BY: MELISSA TANAKA
The appearance of an Asian-American family sitcom has been both long-awaited and anticipated, and with the premiere of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” on Feb. 4, it is safe to say that it was worth the wait. With shows like “Modern Family” and “Black-ish”, ABC’s efforts not only reflect the diversity of the United States, but do so in a way that is both believable and enjoyable. “Fresh Off the Boat” is the latest to join this reinvention of the American family in the first Asian-American sitcom since Margaret Cho's “All American Girl” in 1994.
“Fresh off the Boat” is loosely based on the bestselling memoir by Eddie Huang that detailed his upbringing as a first-generation American. In an article written by Huang in New York Magazine, he voiced his distaste for the compromises that were made during the process of transferring his story to the small screen. Despite his grievances, Huang provides the narration for the episodes in a way that is reminiscent of Chris Rock’s role in “Everybody Hates Chris,” that embodies the wit and sarcasm that Huang is known for.
The show itself centers on the 11-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang) who is one of three American-born sons of Taiwanese immigrants Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu). In the first episode, the Huang family moves from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida so that Louis can follow his dream of opening up a restaurant.
While his younger brothers Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen) easily adapt to the new location, Eddie has trouble fitting in, eventually asking his mother to buy “white people food” in an effort to assimilate. The lunchtime scene is all too familiar for any Asian-American who’s been the subject of curiosity—or outright disgust in Eddie’s case— at the lunch table, and speaks on a bigger scale to the way people are shamed or excluded for their differences.
Historically, Asians have been cast as the perpetual Other, and “Fresh Off the Boat” exposes these views as narrow-minded and emphasizes just how ridiculous the mindset is. While unpacking the moving van, the Huang family is approached by a gaggle of roller-skaters, led by a blonde woman named Diedre.
Diedre can be seen as the epitome of White suburbia, portrayed through the eyes of an Asian-American, whose friendliness is not overridden by her condescending manner. In the span of two minutes, she expresses her displeasure at Jessica’s “un-exotic” name and compliments Eddie’s English, despite him saying that he and his brothers were born in the United States. Although she means well, she carries with her the preconceived notion of what it means to be Asian and places these beliefs on the Huang family without getting to know them.
In what can be seen as the climax of the episode, Eddie is pushed out of line and has a racial slur used against him by an African-American student who proclaims that Eddie is now the underdog. This moment, which is based on one of Huang’s real-life experiences, is representative of the pervasive nature of racial politics in the United States, and the way minorities will fight among themselves in an attempt to climb even a step on the ladder of racial hierarchy. That being said, the two boys end up in a physical altercation, and although viewers don’t find out what happens with the other student, the possibility remains that he may be developed into a more central character later on in the season.
Overall, “Fresh off the Boat” offers relatable, well-written characters that are a far cry from the Asian stereotypes that mainstream media has a tendency to repeat. The show isn’t perfect, but it’s here providing visibility for Asian-Americans and a chance to see their lives and their stories reflected on the small screen. After all, small steps can lead to great changes. Here’s to the changes.